How the ‘ought’ obscures the ‘is’

Over the last few years I have come across a number of examples of the way in which the current managerial preoccupation with abstractions, often expressed as policies, procedures or putatively comprehensive ‘systems‘, severely inhibits managers from discussing and dealing with important organisational events which occur right under their noses. This is not to mount a case against having policies and procedures, but is a warning about the false sense of security and comfort that can arise from talking about things in the abstract rather than paying attention to organisational experience.

A charity I worked with was obliged under charity law to carry out a risk assessment. They borrowed a comprehensive framework from the Charity Commission and discussed it, and evaluated their own performance as a group of Trustees. They decided that because of the high level of competency and expertise on the Board and their ability to deal effectively with the charity’s business they would rate their risk to the organisation as low. Within six months of completing the risk assessment they found themselves dealing with the turbulence surrounding their own poor appointment of a new CEO. Galloping into the situation they then dithered, backed the CEO, then suddenly withdrew their support and in the process alienated most of the staff. The CEO decided to resign and spend more time with his family, and the organisation hung by a thread with a demoralised staff group, a bewildered board and a potential public relations disaster.

I worked with another organisation where a new senior manager had proved a tricky appointment. Not only had he driven out a number of staff around him, but there had been complaints about his behaviour which had come to the attention of the directors. He could be abrasive and bullying, and conflicts with staff could sometimes break into full organisational view. Yet the Board had been impressed with this manager at interview because of his motivation and commitment. The directors wondered how they might deal with this situation and turned to an outside consultant for advice. The consultant recommended that a director undertake a performance review with the problematic senior manager and provided a tool for doing so.

The tool purported to be a comprehensive document which broke down the role of management into key competences and then asked both the person being appraised and their appraiser to come up with scores against thirty questions. Two examples of the competences were ‘organisational awareness’ and ‘charisma’. So under ‘organisational awareness’ good managers are supposed to be able to ‘communicate useful information to appropriate people within the business on a timely and accurate basis.’ Meanwhile, as far as charisma goes, the manager is expected to be able to ‘inspire self and others’ as well as ‘change own state and state of mind of others at will by inducing the right brain chemistry’. Throughout this document communication must always be effective, relationships appropriate and/or positive, behaviours are always chosen by managers but must be the correct ones, targets are specific measurable and time-bound, judgments sound, and interventions solutions-focused.

Meanwhile, I was invited to attend a directors’ meeting in another organization where they had been discussing the introduction of a new bullying and harassment policy, which was introduced because of contractual obligations. The conversation was long and detailed, as was the documentation, which updated and revised previous policies. New laws cut across and qualified old laws, which meant partially updating some of the policy and fully revising other bits. The group of directors was congratulated by a consultant advisor that their policy and practice were now state of the art, cutting edge. Towards the end of the meeting while the directors were discussing other business the CEO mentioned almost in passing that a member of staff had been dismissed for sexually harassing another member of staff. The person who had been dismissed was a long term and mostly well-liked employee who had been in the business for years and would have been present for many of the in-house training sessions going through the various manifestations of the very bullying and harassment policy the group of directors had been discussing and revising. This particular employee had always been surrounded by rumour and innuendo about their behaviour. A couple of directors wanted to discuss the case but were prevented from doing so by the chair of the board on grounds of confidentiality. ‘It is exactly this kind of case that our new bullying and harassment policy is designed to prevent in future’, she said.

These examples seem to me to share a number of things in common. They are each extremely difficult to deal with, presenting more or less nuanced and complex problems that occur every day in many organizations. So, in the first instance how easy is it for a group of colleagues who are working together to discuss what they think of each other, and whether they think they are doing a good job together? In the second, how might one engage with a clearly unhappy manager in a way that still leaves the door open for that manager to continue in the organization? And in the third example, how can one account for the co-existence of rules which seem perfectly clear on the one hand, and yet also explain the very subtle subversion of these rules over a long period of time in which everyone colluded to a greater or lesser extent? It is more comforting to stick to policy development since to an extent policies are a defence against anxiety.

It seems to me that in each case there is an assumption that developing rules and policies is the most important thing to do to deal with complex and subtle organisational reality. This assumption is underpinned by a claim to systematic, and in some cases, scientific, rationality: in other words, there is an implication that a group of good and rational people can sit together in a room and design a system for preventing risk, for dealing with difficult people or for protecting staff. Particularly in the second example, the idea of producing a quantitative scoring covers over what is a very subjective exercise with a patina of objectivity. Many of the concepts in the questionnaire are very ill-defined. But the questionnaire format is an attempt to mitigate the human discomfort: it is not the appraiser who is obliged to say difficult things, the argument might go, but the numbers speak for themselves. In claiming to be rational these abstract exercises also perpetuate the illusion of managerial control.

Secondly, in using very abstract language and concepts, they can draw attention away from critical enquiry into what people mean by what they say, instead of using practical examples from the organization and current experience of staff to make the general rules particular. So, for example, without discussing practical examples of the ways in which a board of trustees had worked together, how might they decide that they presented a low risk to the organization? Without discussing particular examples of harassment, no matter how difficult and confidential, how will the directors and staff learn to speak the unspoken?

Thirdly I would argue that privileging abstract theorizing and rule development over the more messy and difficult process of trying to find ways of discussing the way these policies impact on our experience, we are giving up ethical responsibility. It is for this reason that people get drawn into claiming that awful things have happened ‘because of the system’. After all the effort which has gone into comprehensive policy development, yet it still seems to fail us. I would argue, however, that only by engaging with the way that we have chosen to work and the complex and unpredictable things that emerge as a result, and which no policy, grid or framework will ever be able to define comprehensively,  will we discover the ethical implications of what we have committed to do.

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